The Wire


Otomo Yoshihide

Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Ensemble – Dreams

A record which captures Otomo's exuberant, open hearted love of music. This review originally appeared in The Wire 220 (June 2002).


A world without songs. There are times when the so-called cutting edge promises exactly that, yet what a grim prospect. Throughout the history of free improvisation there has been an oblique, elusive yet persistent relationship between song and the outer limits of instrumental music created in the moment. Think of John Coltrane's epic assault on "My Favorite Things", Willem Breuker's theatre music of the late 1960s, the solos and ensemble work of players such as Peter Brøtzmann, Maggie Nicols, Misha Mengelberg, Shelley Hirsch, Steve Beresford, Phil Minton, Taku Sugimoto and Lol Coxhill, the links between AMM and The Scratch Orchestra, Roger Turner's work with Annette Peacock, Derek Bailey's Ballads CD, or the rapidly oscillating dialogue between structure and its dismantled double in John Zorn's music. Alternatively, think of the examples of songs in which improvisation menaces or ruptures the boundaries that make a lyric, or a repeating form, into a recognisable object for the memory.

Otomo Yoshihide is young enough to have adopted, then escaped the sectarianism that haunted European improvisation in the 1970s, yet mature enough to accept that song and Improv are problematic siblings. In the sleevenotes of his recently reissued Ground Zero album, Plays Standards, he recalls the moment when hearing records by Victor Jara and Mercedes Sosa for the first time awakened a passion for song that he assumed had been lost. The confrontational intensity of that album makes a fascinating contrast with Yoshihide Otomo Plays The Music Of Takeo Yamashita and Cathode, both recorded a few years later. The organic development of his turntable skills into an individual talent for orchestration hits a high on those records. Nobody else quite achieves his particular balance of bruising physicality, refinement and strange invention.

Two tracks on the Takeo Yamashita homage featured Novo Tono, the group Otomo used to share with Tokyo singer Phew, and she returns in the more closely scrutinised, less referential context of Dreams. The other featured vocalist is Jun Togawa, once described in Nadir magazine by John Zorn as "[one of the] few artists in the world whose career is one of growth, where you can see them learning, getting better and better with each album". The title, the anachronistic musical styles and the complex emotional tenor of this little song cycle all carry implications of cinema. Forget the cliche of music for a non-existent film in your head; these are songs begging for embodiment through celluloid. The opening track, "Preach", begins as a duet between Otomo's guitar chords and Jun Togawa's naked vocal, recorded in extreme close-up. With the entry of Kikuchi Naruyoshi's deliciously vaudevillian horn charts and Yasuhiro Yoshigaki's marching band snare rolls, "Preach" opens up memories of Brecht and Weill, even Carla Bley. Flickering behind moving edges, the luminous glow of Masuko Tatsuki's electronic keyboards adds images of circus dreams to this theatre of ghosts.

"Yume" is a poignant ballad on which Phew sounds simultaneously childlike and ancient, vulnerable yet indomitable. Her torchsong voice picks its way through an arrangement that burns on a slow fuse, Otomo's wah-wah guitar and Sachiko M's sinewave, a pedal note for dogs and dolphins, countering any false notion of historical authenticity. This is jazz informed by the past but not imprisoned by it; as much Donald and Albert Ayler's conception of ensemble counterpoint or the wayward harmolodics of an Ornette Coleman ballad as a genuine love for the soft smeared tonal beauty of a Don Byas or Lucky Thompson. Like most of the songs on Dreams, "Good Morning" grows out of Otomo's guitar, this time a simple, unadorned alternation of G major to C major, Kenta Tsugami's alto sax, Naruyoshi Kikuchi's tenor and Yasuhiro Yoshigaki's trumpet weaving drunken ruminations around his sober centre. Even without understanding Phew's words, her delivery is hugely affecting in its grownup innocence.

"Teinen Pushiganga" takes us back to the moment when Otomo heard records by Victor Jara and Mercedes Sosa and experienced a reawakening. Strummed acoustic guitar and bodhran sound positively Andean, like the intro to an Inti Illimani song, though the panpipes are replaced by Phew's declamatory vocal and a free jazz interlude. Opening with funereal drumming, bleeps and sinewaves, "Toi Hibiki" could be 21st century Gagaku, but detours sharply - a gorgeous meandering lament, hints of rock 'n' roll in its chord progression, a plaintive drone of electronics and saxophone, the steady ascent of a typically lugubrious horn arrangement - then finally back to Phew and the song. Absolutely spellbinding.

Track six is an episodic journey through Jim O'Rourke's "Eureka", with words by Phew and vocals by the two singers. In a middle section so intimate it feels like a violation, Jun Togawa sings, almost speaks in a gentle murmur, every syllable a caress, the soft tap of lips and tongue echoed by Yasuhiro Yoshigaki's trumpet growl and wail (a pre- and post-bebop sound, from Bubber Miley to Don Cherry in its earthiness). A lo-fi landscape of sea and wind sounds from Hiroshi Ando's film Blue breaks the continuity, dropping out abruptly to leave only the thin reed of Sachiko's sinewave. In the final section, bassist Hiroaki Mizutani plays beautifully underneath a turbulent, yearning horn part that reminds me of the way John Tchicai and Richard Abrams once used magisterial horn ensembles to state melody.

The final track is the headlong rush of "Hahen Fukei". In a sudden liberation from the preceding solemnity and restraint, Phew and Togawa speak in tongues, screech, shout, abandon sense and word in a frenzy of wah-wah assault, reed violence, drum mania, electronic surgery. Perhaps there is a narrative of sorts running through Dreams. Impossible for me to say, though the strength of the writing and arranging, the emotional grain of the voices and the conviction of the playing convey their own lucidity, their own dramatic logic. Above all, the record captures Otomo's exuberant, open hearted love of music. In a time of too much product, not enough belief, such a quality is restorative, optimistic, the stuff of dreams.

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